First Impressions Matter: How Good Designs Can Boost Our Automatic Cognitive Processing

Published on: 

November 3, 2022


We all like to think we are logical human beings in control of the decisions that we make. To some extent, we are. We make conscious decisions about what to eat, drink, read, wear, and so on; but a large extent of cognitive processing happens before we direct our conscious attention toward it. Consequently, as UX practitioners, we also need to understand how irrational behavior influences decision making, and take it into account in our designs.

Two Systems of Information Processing

Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes two modes in which people process information: Systems 1 and 2.

System 1, our “automatic system,” is largely involuntary and requires little effort, but it is fast at detecting simple relationships or recognizing patterns. System 2, on the other hand is slow and effortful, requiring our attention; it is usually involved in complex activities such as mental math. We tend to identify with our System 2 self: conscious, alert, and in control of our fates. However, in many of our behaviors, System 1 remains largely at the wheel. Even when not completely in command, it provides much of the input upon which System 2 acts.

System 1 provides us with shortcuts based on experience. Carefully processing every object around us would be overwhelming and would take too long, making our primitive ancestors an easy prey for their enemies in the wild. System 1 enables us to rapidly identify the information relevant for a task, and System 2 uses this input to make a reasonably accurate decision.

Why should designers care about the automatic, implicit processes of System 1?  Here are some reasons:

1. System 1 shapes how users judge the relevance of information.

During information-search tasks, users quickly scan for relevant information and tend to interact with items that have high information scent.

System 2 can “tell” System 1 what to attend to, depending on the task that it tries to solve. Indeed, eyetracking data indicates that scanning patterns on the web are optimized for the current goal. For example, if users want to search for information on a website, they might ignore everything but search indicators (a magnifying glass, the word “search”, or an input field).

System 1 is excellent at ruling out irrelevant information — except when relevant information looks like irrelevant information (for example, if it is embedded in the right rail and people mistake it for an ad). In such cases, relevant information will be ignored just the same as the irrelevant information it looks like. Thus, first impressions are quick and mostly accurate, but not entirely fool-proof. This is why we emphasize that whatever is important to users at their current stage of their journey should actually look important — whether that means using a larger typeface, bold font, boxes, buttons, or other UI elements that stand out.

By anticipating user needs, we can guide users toward desirable actions (ethically, of course). Knowing this will save designers and UX practitioners from expending valuable time, energy, and money on content that will be ignored in the blink of an eye.

2. System 1 influences how users perceive the aesthetics, and indirectly, the usability of a site.

People tend to be more forgiving of beautiful designs and less so of visually jarring ones. If a website is aesthetically pleasing, users will tend to remember the site as more usable than it actually was. System 1 is the one who decides very quickly, at a visceral level whether a site is beautiful. Indeed, according to research by Gitte Lindgaard and her colleagues, a decision on aesthetics is made as early as 50 milliseconds into visiting a site, and rarely changes if you give people more time.

Not to say that poor usability won’t be noticed or remembered, or that usability is any less important, but if you’re courting new customers, it certainly helps to start off on the right foot in those first few milliseconds.

3. System 1 shapes how users judge site credibility.

When users land on a page, they often have a goal in mind — that is, System 1 will start with some instructions from System 2. But if the page has certain design elements that stand out (for example, one red button in a wall of black text), System 1 will automatically be drawn by them.  According to BJ Fogg’s prominence-interpretation theory, the more prominent an element is on a page, the higher its impact will be on the overall credibility of the site. This effect can be positive or negative, depending on how people interpret that element.  Thus, a moving ad at the top of the page will be highly salient and will be perceived as annoying, so it will diminish the credibility of the site. On the other hand, a big endorsement from a notable publication such as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal may be interpreted as positive and increase the credibility of the site.

Implications for Design

Here are some things to keep in mind throughout the design process to support and take advantage of System 1’s automatic processes.

Identify key workflows for each persona.
Any given product might have several audiences, each accomplishing different tasks. Use personas to represent these user types. Understand the mindsets and attitudes of various audiences, identify their primary goals and how they might try to accomplish them. Ask yourself, “What is our persona, Patricia, looking for in order to accomplish the first step of her task?” Once you’ve identified the tasks your users might accomplish, map out their workflows and make sure you visually prioritize information relevant to those workflows. However, avoid using the phrase “Get Started” – it prematurely stops users in their tracks and diverts them away from other relevant information they might need.

Let’s consider a hospital or medical website. Those who experience a medical emergency will need highly actionable information — every second is a matter of life and death. This information should not compete visually with other, less urgent information.

Streamline visuals as to not overwhelm System 1 and to help it identify relevant information.
We saw that System 1 is attracted to any design elements that stand out; if they happen to be relevant to the current task, great! Consider how these elements affect the perception of aesthetics, usability, and credibility of your site.

Your most prominent design elements should be clear and bolster credibility.

As you iterate your designs, measure first impressions and test your site with real people.
Don’t use intuition to assess people’s first impressions of your designs: test them instead. Don’t just use fellow employees, either; get real people, preferably customers, to try out your designs. Here are some first-impression tests:


Unfortunately, people do judge the book by its cover. First impressions affect users’ perception of aesthetics, usability, and credibility of a website. To create delightful and hassle-free interfaces, we need to look beyond rational thought and support those instinctive, automatic processes that people engage in when they first land on a web page. Once we understand the strengths and limitations of the human mind, we can be effective about how we approach our designs. Nevertheless, we never truly know what our users think until we ask them. When in doubt, test it out.

Sources Cited

Matthias Deller, Achim Ebert, Michael Bender, Stefan Agne, and Henning Barthel. 2007. Preattentive visualization of information relevance. In Proceedings of the international workshop on Human-centered multimedia (HCM '07). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 47-56. DOI=

Fogg, BJ, 2003, Prominence-Interpretation Theory: Explaining How People Assess Credibility Online, CHI 2003: New Horizons, 722-723.

Kahneman, D. 2015. Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Gitte Lindgaard, Gary Fernandes, Cathy Dudek, J. Brown. Attention web designers: You have 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression! Behaviour & Information Technology, Vol. 25, No. 2, March-April 2006, 115-126.

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